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Caviar: The History of Sturgeon Fish Caviar

Caviar is often associated with holiday festivities.  Here’s a little history about the origins and current production of sturgeon fish caviar.

Long associated with the indulgent lifestyle led by European monarchy and other members of Europe’s ruling classes, caviar boasts a particularly strong historic connection with the incalculably wealthy members of the Russian Imperial Court. The strength of that historic connection is only natural, as sturgeon fish caviar originating in the slightly saline waters of the Caspian Sea shared by Russia and Iran came to be not only highly prized but almost revered by the Russian Tsars and Tsaritsas, eventually becoming a significant part of their diet.

The Russians weren’t the only early caviar devotees, however. The Persians, whose country stretched across the Caspian’s sparkling southern shores, were the first to prepare and delight in sturgeon fish caviar, attributing an assortment of medicinal powers to the delicacy. In fact, the name “caviar” is derived from the word “khav-yar,” meaning “cake of power” or “cake of strength” in Persian.

As time passed, caviar came to be considered the quintessential indulgence in nearly every European culture. For example, several centuries ago, British kings reserved the consumption of sturgeon and their roe to members of the royalty. In short, this superb culinary indulgence has captured the hearts and palates of discriminating connoisseurs throughout the world for more than two thousand years.

No matter which species of sturgeon produce the roe – beluga, sterlet, osetra (also spelled ossetra) or sevruga – caviar has always been a highly coveted symbol of wealth, opulence and power surrounded by Old World traditions and mystique. Although Eastern hemisphere sturgeon are also native to the Black Sea and, to a much lesser degree, the Adriatic Sea and several Siberian and Chinese rivers, the primary source of wild sturgeon and their roe has always been the Caspian Sea.

Unfortunately, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial overfishing and caviar’s exceptional popularity among the wealthy led to a precipitous decline in the Caspian’s sturgeon population. In an interesting turn of events, the American caviar industry began to burgeon at almost the same time, focusing at first on the roe of native sturgeon found in the Atlantic seaboard’s Delaware River. American caviar was abundant, especially when compared to the declining availability of roe from the Caspian Sea. In fact, the supply was so plentiful that American sturgeon fish caviar was served in bars and pubs to encourage patrons to drink more alcoholic beverages. American sturgeon roe was frequently fed to pets or even discarded.

By the late 19th century, 90% of the world’s caviar came from American sturgeon roe. American sturgeon fish caviar was exported to a large number of countries, sometimes being sold deceptively as “Russian caviar.” Sadly, history repeated itself, as it so often does. Overfishing caused the depletion of wild American sturgeon, just as it did with the sturgeon native to the Caspian Sea. As a result, commercial sturgeon fishing in the United States was banned in 1906. Eventually the Soviet Union followed suit by restricting commercial sturgeon fishing. Today, the world’s wild sturgeon population is so depleted the fish are recognized as endangered species.

The American caviar industry has, however, made a remarkable comeback from its perch on the brink of disaster. The dearth of Caspian Sea sturgeon and political unrest in Russia and Iran, coupled with refinements in modern aquaculture techniques, now lead many connoisseurs to buy caviar produced in the United States. For example, the flavorful California osetra produced by Tsar Nicoulai Caviar through its sustainable farming techniques is winning praise for its rich, clean taste and full, buttery finish.

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, Uruguay’s Black River Caviar and Petrossian Caviar all produce superb sturgeon fish caviar worthy of the world’s most discriminating palates by successfully employing responsible, sustainable sturgeon farming methods. Thanks to producers like these, caviar’s luxury and opulence can continue to be savored despite the near-extinction of wild sturgeon.

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